Making Mitt: The Myth Of George Romney

The Republican nominee’s father didn’t walk out of the ‘64 convention. And George Romney didn’t teach Mitt that you lose by being honest — he taught him that you change your positions to win. posted on

Everyone agrees: Mitt Romney is not like his father.

The late Michigan governor and 1968 presidential candidate George Romney is remembered as a principled man of spontaneity and candor. His example is regularly invoked by both admirers of his son’s disciplined campaign style and critics of Mitt’s back-and-forth pandering. George, it is said, told the truth about the Vietnam War before it was popular to do so, with an unfortunately worded comment about “brainwashing” by U.S. government officials that cost him the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. “Mitt learned at an impressionable age that in politics, authenticity kills,” historian Rick Perlstein wrote in Rolling Stone earlier this year. “Heeding the lesson of his father’s fall, he became a virtual parody of an inauthentic politician.”

This rejection of his father’s example, the thinking goes, is what has made Mitt a more successful presidential candidate — self-controlled but hard to pin down, flipping from moderate to conservative to moderate once again. It is observed that Mitt would never draw a line in the sand like his father did in 1964, when George dramatically “charged out of the 1964 Republican National Convention over the party’s foot-dragging on civil rights,” as the Boston Globe’s authoritative biography, “The Real Romney,” put it earlier this year. Outlets from the New York Times to the New Republic have recalled this story of the elder Romney’s stand against Barry Goldwater’s hard-line conservatives. Frontline’s documentary “The Choice 2012” reported it as a formative event: “when Goldwater received the nomination, Mitt saw his father angrily storm out.” A Google search for the incident produces hundreds of pages of results. In August, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne cited the episode to write that Mitt “has seemed more a politician who would do whatever it took to close a deal than a leader driven by conviction and commitment. This is a problem George Romney never had.”

Only George Romney did not walk out of the 1964 Republican National Convention. He stayed until the very end, formally seconding Goldwater’s eventual nomination and later standing by while an actual walkout took place. He left the convention holding open the possibility of endorsing Goldwater and then, after a unity summit in Hershey, Pennsylvania, momentarily endorsed the Arizona senator. Then he changed his mind while his top aides polled “all-white and race-conscious” Michigan communities for a “secret” white backlash vote against LBJ’s civil rights advances — a backlash that might have made a Goldwater endorsement palatable at home. Finding the Republican label even more unpopular than civil rights in Michigan, Romney ultimately distanced himself from the entire party, including his own moderate Republican allies.

Exactly where the 1964 myth entered the public consciousness is difficult to pinpoint, but it has been promoted by Mitt, who made one of its earliest print mentions in an interview during his 1994 U.S. Senate campaign. (Romney’s longtime spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom did not respond to an inquiry about Mitt’s recollection of the incident.) “[My father] walked out of the Republican National Convention in 1964, when Barry Goldwater said, ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,’” he told Bay Windows, a LGBT interest magazine in Boston.

“I don’t remember him walking out, no,” Walt DeVries, a George Romney aide who was with him at the 1964 convention, told BuzzFeed in an interview this October 13. “Every time I see that quote from Mitt, I just don’t remember…. I’ve searched my mind, and I think I would have.”

The phrase “walk out” was first associated with Romney’s 1964 actions, ironically, when Barry Goldwater told Human Events magazine in August 1966 that Republicans wouldn’t nominate someone in 1968 who “took a walk-out in 1964.” After 1994, Mitt mentioned the alleged incident again to the Globe in 2005, ten years after the elder Romney’s death and late in Mitt’s single term as Massachusetts governor. The assertion was repeated later that year in an Atlantic profile. Soon after, Romney began seeking the presidency and realigning his views to match the conservative national Republican electorate. Thus, the myth he contributed to became a foil to his pandering.

This prevalence of this myth in the media over the last six years has led to a broader failure to capture the full portrait of George Romney’s political biography, and by proxy, the 2012 Republican nominee. The story of a son scarred by his father’s defeat and rebelling against his example is a compelling narrative, but such a narrative focuses only on the latter, losing half of George Romney’s career — a time, notably, when Mitt Romney wasn’t even around. (He was abroad for his church mission from July 1966 through December 1968.) But Mitt was there in 1962 and 1964 for his father’s winning Michigan campaigns.

In fact, it was at the very start of his 1962 campaign that George Romney became the first person to walk back a Mitt Romney statement. It was a February morning in Detroit, 1962, the day George revealed his candidacy for Michigan’s governorship after widely publicizing his deliberations. Fourteen-year-old Willard, who told reporters to “call me Mitt,” was the only one of the four Romney children present that day. Mitt’s sisters were married with children, living in other cities by then, and his older brother was abroad serving his church mission. Mitt was the only one at home in Michigan for the ’62 campaign, marching alongside his parents in parades, appearing as a star attraction at a “teenage Republicans” rally and ceremonially delivering nominating petition signatures to the statehouse in Lansing. In a way, Mitt Romney was a junior candidate that year, so it was only natural that he found himself talking to the press at the announcement, where he merely repeated what his father had told him: the day before, George Romney had woken at 3:30 a.m. and decided he would run for governor.

As innocent as that seemed, it was not what his father wanted the journalists to hear, for the day before George Romney had been on the clock as a delegate to the Michigan state constitutional convention. George believed the convention to be civic work that should not mix with politics (a ridiculous notion, since the convention was elected on an explicitly partisan basis and stocked with politicians). George insisted that Mitt was mistaken: his “final decision” had not come until later on his drive from Lansing, after a respectable distance between his ambition and the convention had been established.

This was George Romney as he was known in his day: a politician who held himself above politics with a stubborn, moralizing insistence that he was guided by principle and only by principle. These were not Republican principles or ideological principles, but his principles. He imbued his every action with “cosmic significance,” as journalist David Broder put it. Touched by God, he was assured that wherever he stood at the moment was the right and just place to be, no matter where he had stood before or how recently he had stood there. “He’ll take a position honestly, and if it doesn’t fit with something else he’s done, that doesn’t faze him,” an associate said at the start of Romney’s political career in 1962. By the time he set out for the presidency in 1967, Broder and Stephen Hess wrote that voters would find him a candidate of contradiction, “[f]or rarely have the words and deeds of a public man run on such separate tracks.”

Romney was blessed with good looks and astounding determination; a man who’d begun with nothing and earned a trophy chest of professional triumphs. He couldn’t be faulted for believing he was a superman. His family certainly seemed to think so — his youngest son Mitt most of all. Once, when Mitt’s mother Lenore Romney told him that they couldn’t take a certain route “because we can’t drive on water,” her son replied, “No, I guess not, since Dad’s not with us.”

This is the heroic, can-do figure Mitt Romney grew up watching. Mitt did not see his father lose the presidential race, but he was present for some big victories. To study that period of the Romney family’s political history is to reveal a calculating, poll-driven politician. It is to reveal a profile strikingly similar to the opportunistic Romney we know today.

IN NINETEEN SIXTY-FOUR, GEORGE Romney would say that he was a Republican all his life, except when he wasn’t.

Born to American parents in Mexico and reared in the Rocky Mountain west, Romney became a success in the Detroit auto industry before turning his attention in the late 1950s to the sorry state of Michigan politics. “Not only have we had little choice between the two parties,” Romney said in a 1958 speech, “but there is growing union domination of the Democratic Party, and big business domination of the Republican Party.” So Romney — until that point a Republican — created a third-way political group called Citizens For Michigan. The organization accepted no donations larger than $100 ($800 in today’s dollars), refused money from unions, corporations and other interests, and did not endorse candidates so it could focus on above-the-fray solutions.

By 1960, Citizens For Michigan’s message was resonating well enough that Republicans courted Romney to run for U.S. Senate. “I am not currently a Republican,” he was quoted as saying in response. “I was, but I’m not now.” Later that year, Romney floated a “Citizens for America” movement and sent a high-handed open letter to the major party nominees, Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy, chiding them for failing to “enlighten public understanding” on the issues facing the country. Romney mailed the Kennedy-Nixon letter to national newspapers and television executives, suggesting they use it as the framework for the upcoming presidential debates, signing his letters with the noble moniker, “George Romney, Citizen.” It is often noted that Romney did not endorse Barry Goldwater in 1964, but it’s altogether forgotten that he didn’t back the more moderate Nixon in 1960, either.

In 1961, Citizens for Michigan succeeded in forcing the aforementioned constitutional convention, a long-overdue effort to straighten out the state’s gridlocked government. The problem for Romney was the rules that the two major parties were able to set for participation. “I tried to get [the convention] called on a non-partisan basis,” Romney explained on Meet The Press the week before he announced his 1962 gubernatorial candidacy. “But the legislature wouldn’t do that and required that if you were a candidate, you had to do it on a partisan basis.” Romney “was forced,” as he described it, “to identify as a Republican” — and even then, the Detroit News noted, he eased back into the G.O.P. by calling himself an “Oakland County Republican” to gain distance from the state and national parties. Still, Republicans out of power in Lansing and Washington embraced him. Nixon anointed Romney a “dark horse” for the 1964 presidential nomination, and Romney began corresponding with former President Eisenhower about the party’s future.

Democrats immediately identified him as a potential threat to President Kennedy’s 1964 reelection. In a forty-two-page memo, White House pollster Louis Harris wrote that Romney had established “the notion of non-partisanship, the idea that somehow he is not a died-in-the-wool [sic] Republican, but is above politics, including the normal GOP variety.” Harris suggested Michigan Democrats “ring the Republican party around Romney’s neck,” to see that he “ends up a Jonah squarely in the middle of the Republican whale.” Romney’s constant criticism of his Republican colleagues inoculated him against such attacks. “I think the Republican Party has been too much identified as a business party,” he said on Meet The Press, “as a party influenced by one economic segment of the country.” At his 1962 gubernatorial announcement, Romney laid the blame for Michigan’s “sorry and tangled mess” at “the doors of too many partisan politicians of both parties acting like narrow partisans first and Michigan citizens last.”

These criticisms raised General Eisenhower’s hackles. Ike’s presidential nomination had halted a conservative takeover of the Republican Party a decade earlier, and he believed Romney could become a similar bulwark against the reactionary conservative movement led by Barry Goldwater, so long as he wasn’t too hostile to the party he was once again a part of. In March 1962, Eisenhower wrote to Romney, “I think that the explanation of your reasons for announcing as a Republican rather than as a Democrat gives the impression that you see no difference whatsoever in the national policies and aims of the two parties. While I am sure that you did not mean this, it is nevertheless true that in recent conversations with businessmen and others, this feeling has taken a firm hold and in some cases with a chilling effect.” Eisenhower said that while he understood Romney needed Democrats and independents to win, “I do think it important that you make clear that your adherence to Republican policies is not a wishy washy thing.” Romney replied to his “dear General” that he found the criticisms “basically valid” and defended his nonpartisan activities of the previous years. But the advice went unheeded, for George Romney had found his greatest success by antagonizing his peers.

When Romney took over the American Motors Corporation in 1954, it was a sliver of the auto market, losing $2 million a month in the production of small cars — “compact cars,” they called them, because “compact” sounded frugal and “small” sounded cheap. Romney quickly became the public face of his company, appearing on television and in print to extol the societal and economic virtues of the compact. His trademark sales pitch was an unusually personal and aggressive mocking of other car companies for producing “gas-guzzling dinosaurs,” bound for the tar pits of history. Romney carried little props: toy dinosaurs he would pull out and compare with his competitors’ designs. He particularly loved the stegosaurus for its “useless non-functional decorative treatment.” The message stuck. In 1959, Time magazine put his picture on its cover with the headline “DINOSAUR HUNTER” and an article noting Romney’s low standing with his fellow executives. They saw Romney as incapable of selling his product without denigrating the work of others, a blowhard who folded average business dealings into a crusade.

During his 1962 campaign, Romney won over voters with that same sort of cheeky spirit. Suburban housewives were surprised to find, as one put it, “a millionaire going around ringing doorbells.” Romney did not ride in parades; he ran in them. He strode through crowds coatless with a French cuff rolled up to the right elbow for better handshaking. He showed up uninvited to the AFL-CIO’s annual Labor Day rally, where the papers ran a picture of him at the back of the amphitheater, looking out at the crowd, his shirtsleeves rolled up, right foot perched on a bench, forearms raised, like Washington crossing the Delaware, the missionary, the outsider in a skeptical, sometimes hostile land. He made sure one of the wire photographers was with him to capture the moment — he knew the power of an image. As Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh later said, “Romney has been a public relations man for thirty years, and his prime product is himself.”

On matters of policy, however, Romney was disengaged. No one disputed that incumbent Democratic Governor John Swainson won all their debates. Romney left the studio after their first encounter and looked at his staff. “You don’t have to tell me what you thought, it’s apparent on your long faces.” Romney tended to wander off in his answers — “Rambling Romneyism,” nationally syndicated columnist Bob Novak came to call it. David Broder wrote, “Romney appears to operate off a limited inventory of rather simple economic and political principles collected hither and yon in the course of his career and jumbled, rather than systemized, into a philosophy of public affairs.” Others would note his overuse of vague rhetoric. It was difficult to tell what he believed. “I’m not absolutely sure he has any deep political thoughts,” Swainson said. “I sometimes feel that it’s whoever speaks to him last that’s the most influential.”

No matter to a state and national press corps that adored Romney. He commanded profiles in national magazines and newspapers, all convinced Lansing was merely a bump on his road to the White House. “If I am elected Governor I will not be a candidate for President in 1964,” Romney pledged up and down the state. In the end, he won with a slim 51 percent majority of the vote, becoming Michigan’s first Republican governor in 14 years. But “Lonesome George,” as they would call him, failed to carry any of the statewide Republican ticket into office.

Romney’s distance from his fellow Republicans was no accident. Early in the campaign, the market-tested man of industry put a poll in the field and found that while he was more popular than Swainson personally, running as a Republican put him at a distinct disadvantage. As a direct result, Romney struck the very word “Republican” from his campaign. In an age where local Republican organizations housed the candidates’ headquarters, Romney opened separate storefronts with no hint of party or pictures of his running mates. Thus, some Republicans blamed Romney for the ticket’s defeat. Republicans like Barry Goldwater.

ONE MIGHT HAVE EXPECTED GOLDWATER to be contrite. The Republicans’ Senate campaign committee, led by the conservative Arizona senator, had just handed a rare midterm victory to a sitting President in the 1962 congressional elections thanks to the Democrats’ gain of four seats in the Senate. Yet the words Goldwater spoke days later were not humbled. He was, in fact, proud of his losers, for they had run and lost as Republicans — unlike George Romney. “Romney ran outside the party organization,” Goldwater complained publicly days after the election. The man had no core philosophy. “One Eisenhower in a decade is enough.”

Goldwater later claimed that he was “probably among the first to suggest to George Romney that he run for Governor of Michigan.” And yet Goldwater had appeared in the state shortly after Romney’s 1962 announcement and publicly criticized Romney’s assertions about Michigan Republicans, calling the notion that business dominated the party a “myth” and a “fraud.” A series of slights ensued. In early 1963, Goldwater, still running the Republicans’ Senate campaign operations, organized a five-hundred-dollar-a-plate dinner with Michigan Republicans. As a courtesy, Goldwater sent an aide to inform the new governor. Romney responded by giving the aide a lecture on the evils of money in politics.

George Romney would later tell Mitt that he and his finance chief, Max Fisher, did all their fundraising for the 1962 campaign in a single night. “Fifteen or twenty people were invited to an event,” as Mitt recalls the story in his book No Apology, “Max made his pitch, and no one left the room until the campaign had what it needed — each check probably totaling $25,000 or more.” But in public Romney abhorred large donations. In October 1962, Romney had showed up to a hundred-dollar-a-plate fundraiser of fifty Republican businessmen and told them off, saying he wished he could raise ten dollars from a million people and do away with events like these. “He almost made it appear that they’d committed some kind of crime,” Bob Novak wrote. Goldwater’s man had received the same treatment, and it burned the senator that Romney could be so self-righteous. So began their feud.

Despite repeated avowals that he would not run for the 1964 presidential nomination, less than five months into George Romney’s term, he spent a week in Washington D.C. getting to know the major players. He began with a speech at the Chamber of Commerce that did far less for Michigan’s business appeal than it did for Romney’s maverick political brand, with lines like, “I deplore the constant exhortation that more businessmen should get into politics…. Businessmen should take off their business hats when they go into politics and work as citizens.” Romney’s old family friend Alice Marriott (co-founder of the eponymous hotel chain with her husband Willard, who Mitt is named after) hosted a coming-out party for his potential 1964 candidacy. A Romney aide bragged that the governor simply had to hold a press conference beforehand. “Otherwise, we’d have had three hundred reporters here to match the three hundred guests.” Nonetheless, Romney maintained that he would not be a candidate for president in 1964.

Romney also paid Senator Goldwater a visit on this trip. Goldwater’s people figured it was a personal appointment, not for public consumption, but then, at the hour of the meeting, reporters appeared on the Old Senate Office Building’s fourth floor and congregated by Goldwater’s door. Romney had used him for publicity. As Romney subsequently relayed their conversation to reporters, he had told Goldwater that he wasn’t running for president and invited the senator to Michigan. He also expressed his concern that there were “extremists” among Goldwater’s supporters in Michigan who might “become a divisive influence on the Republican Party.” Romney’s main concern was a Goldwater backer named Richard Durant, a powerful Michigan conservative who had been a member of the John Birch Society, a paranoid ultra-rightist organization that leveled charges of Communist conspiracy at a range of figures, even General Eisenhower. Romney had tried and failed to remove Durant from the state’s Republican power structure in the ’62 primary, declaring, “If the delegates re-elect this man or delegate to him the responsibility of leadership, then you will have repudiated me.” But Durant held on, and at this 1963 meeting, Romney urged Goldwater to disavow him. Goldwater would do no such thing, and days later, the senator publicly stewed that “the kingmakers” were orchestrating Romney’s nomination.

The Romney-for-president bandwagon slowed only when the Detroit News editorial board called George back to Michigan both metaphorically and literally. “George — Come Home” said the headline directed at the governor, who spent ten days in D.C.

ROMNEY WOULD LATER SAY THAT he and Goldwater didn’t discuss civil rights at their 1963 meeting, as it took place days before Birmingham exploded. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Detroit in June to lead a march down Woodward Avenue and Romney declared it “Freedom March Day” in Michigan, but since the event fell on a Sunday, and he didn’t practice politics on Sundays, he had representatives march in his place. The conspicuous absence left a sour taste in some mouths. If a man of the cloth like Dr. King and some 125,000 other souls could march for God-given rights on a Sunday, why couldn’t George Romney? The following Saturday, Romney turned up unannounced at a march for open housing in Grosse Pointe. Ed Turner, the head of Detroit’s NAACP chapter, told reporters, “This is where we’ve been trying to get him for a long time. And with all due deference, he’s going to tell you that he has been out in front of us all along.” (Little did Turner know that George Romney would later claim to have marched with MLK in Detroit, a story Mitt repeated in his campaigns.)

There is no questioning George Romney’s sterling civil rights record. He had been battling segregated housing in Michigan since World War II. He set the standard for fair employment practices at American Motors, successfully lobbied to make them law statewide, and later established a state civil rights commission at the constitutional convention. It probably didn’t escape the governor, though, that Grosse Pointe, site of the anti-segregation march, was his nemesis Richard Durant’s home and power base — and it didn’t seem to escape one heckler, who yelled: “Hey governor, tomorrow in Bloomfield Hills!” Bloomfield Hills was the exclusive white suburb where the Romneys lived.

A few months later, in September 1963, Romney lost his temper with a Goldwater aide at an informal Michigan delegates’ meeting and stood “jowl to jowl” screaming that he wanted Durant out of the state delegation. The Goldwater high command took no action on Durant; nevertheless, Romney forged an uneasy peace with Goldwater, adopting a neutral attitude toward the controversial Arizona senator, and at one point rebuking an ad that suggested he supported Nelson Rockefeller’s run against Goldwater in the hotly contested June 1964 California primary. In exchange, Goldwater partisans didn’t embarrass Romney by challenging his control over the Michigan’s state Republican apparatus — a feat they had accomplished elsewhere.

Romney did, however, soften his stance on running for president at the start of 1964, saying he would have to accept a draft if called upon. Despite Romney’s openness to a draft, when Goldwater’s nomination began looking inevitable with a win in the June 2nd California primary and General Eisenhower decided a moderate intervention was needed, he turned not to Romney but to Governor Bill Scranton of Pennsylvania. With Ike’s encouragement, Scranton planned to announce his candidacy the Sunday after the California primary on Face The Nation, which would be broadcast from the National Governors Conference in Cleveland. Romney arrived at the conference oblivious to his fellow moderates’ machinations. At the airport, he told reporters that he didn’t expect much in the way of politics to come out of the gathering. “There is a time and place for those things but this is not it,” Romney said. Then he saw the reports: Eisenhower and Scranton, moving to wrest control of the party — moving, without him. Romney needed to place himself in the thick of things, a maneuver he had some experience with.

THERE IS A STORY ROMNEY often told about his time as a Mormon missionary in London’s Hyde Park. Romney would go and stand and preach and preach and yet no one would stop to listen — a problem, he noticed, that he shared with a red-bearded socialist shouting his beliefs across the way. So they devised a plan. As Romney would speak and proclaim the Book of Mormon, he had the socialist stand by and heckle him. Romney then did the same during the socialist’s speeches, and in no time at all, people were stopping and listening to the spectacle. Romney had learned the value of picking a fight. He pulled this trick again as an auto executive in 1958. A Senate subcommittee was holding hearings on price hikes in the industry and called all of its biggest players: the heads of Ford, Chrysler and the United Auto Workers union. Romney, president of the small, money-losing American Motors Corporation, was not invited to testify but requested time before the subcommittee all the same. They expected just another businessman complaining about the high cost of organized labor. What they got was a plea to prosecute GM and Chrysler as monopolies and break them up into smaller entities. (An interesting turn of events, as earlier in his life, Romney had worked as a lobbyist defending the much more dominant Alcoa company against monopoly allegations.) “Creating new automobile companies would increase competition in the automobile industry,” Romney said. It was a politically implausible proposal and his fellow executives were disgusted, but it got Romney even more national headlines just as American Motors announced a milestone: its first profitable year.

And so, as Saturday turned to Sunday in Romney’s Cleveland hotel suite, he dictated a broadside against Goldwater so stinging that it would put him with Scranton at the head of the establishment’s opposition. Romney piled on the theatrics, playing a trump card nearly fifty-seven years in the making. He went downstairs and alerted reporters that for the first time in his life, he felt compelled to work on the Sabbath. The reason: “I have serious reservations about Senator Goldwater’s positions.” Then Romney marched into the Republican governors’ caucus breakfast and presented the statement he planned to make to the press. The 1964 convention could bring about “the suicidal destruction of the Republican Party as an effective instrument in meeting the nation’s needs” were it to nominate Goldwater, he said. If the senator did not adjust his views on the pending civil rights bill and John Birch Society extremists, Romney vowed, “I will do everything within my power to keep him from becoming the party’s presidential candidate.”

Romney asked his fellow governors to join him in calling upon Senator Goldwater to appear before their caucus, account for his controversial views, and then recant them. He believed that after a private, in-depth meeting (“I am not expecting to sit in a crowd and hear some surface discussion of these matters”) Goldwater could claim that his “personal convictions” on civil rights and extremism were “distinctly different from the public views he has expressed.” Thus, Goldwater would reverse himself and imply that he and his core supporters had been racists “up until the moment that St. George went to his moral rescue,” as William F. Buckley, Jr., later characterized Romney’s 1964 demands. Whether or not Romney realized how ridiculous his idea sounded, he told his fellow Republican governors that this was the only way to win in the fall.

Only no one would join George Romney because he was, as Bob Novak wrote, “not liked.” ‘Lonesome George’ was widely resented as an opportunist. Even moderates like Illinois’ Charles Percy rejected comparisons to Romney. “Please remember,” Percy told reporters in 1963, “that unlike Romney I have always been a Republican and have worked within the structure of the party.” Worse, Romney treated his colleagues like moral inferiors. At the previous year’s Governors Conference, he had not only boycotted the Republican caucus meeting because it was scheduled for a Sunday, he had issued a sanctimonious press release expressing how “personally disappointed” he was in his colleagues for not boycotting it with him. (The governors had the last laugh when Romney’s press release contained the worst typo a Mormon could make: “I have a special commitment to reserve Sundays for church activities and for my families….”)

Both conservative and moderate governors took issue with Romney’s statement, pleading with him not to make it. Romney was undeterred, confident in the strength of a Scranton-Eisenhower bandwagon. But unbeknownst to Romney, Scranton had arrived at the hotel with an urgent call waiting. It was Eisenhower on the line, and he’d had second thoughts. It was later revealed that Ike’s host in Cleveland, a staunch Goldwater supporter, told him he would be a most unwelcome guest were he to upend the conservative movement during his visit. So rather than find another place to stay, Eisenhower cut Scranton loose. Stunned and dizzy, Scranton went into the caucus meeting where Romney was already battling with the other governors. He never got a chance to tell George about Eisenhower’s phone call.

Romney could be forgiven for thinking his press conference was blessed rather than doomed. As he began to speak, a band in the next room began rehearsing “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a patriotic score for his righteous stand. When a reporter asked if he would support the nominee chosen at the upcoming convention, Romney said, “Well, this would depend upon his support of the platform developed at the convention. If the candidate is prepared to support the platform adopted by the convention, then he would merit the support of those who are members of the Republican Party….” Another question noted that when Romney landed in Cleveland the night before, he said he wouldn’t take a position on Goldwater “until I sit down and know his views directly.”

“I have modified that position some this morning,” said Romney.

A follow up: “I am wondering what happened between your arrival last night and this morning to change your position?”

“Plenty of things happened yesterday to indicate that this conference was going to have a real impact on what happens in San Francisco. I didn’t know until yesterday morning that Goldwater and Nixon were going to be here, and I didn’t know that General Eisenhower was going to issue the statements he made.” Romney was getting ahead of himself. No one had issued formal statements yet. He continued, “I didn’t know that Scranton was going to say what he said, and probably is in the process of saying now. You might want to get out and hear him….” And so they did.

“I don’t plan to go out and try to defeat Goldwater,” Scranton said on Face The Nation, looking defensive and uncomfortable. A journalist described the interview as “one of the most miserable ordeals and poorest performances a major politician has ever lived through,” and Romney was the fool right alongside him. He had invited the Detroit News and other reporters up to his hotel suite to watch the program, clueless to the impending disaster. As Romney watched the damage unfold, he couldn’t contain himself. “Party unity seems to be more important than anything else,” he complained aloud to the set. “Where are his principles?”

After his calamitous interview, Scranton met with Rockefeller and Ohio governor James Rhodes and decided that Romney, given his press conference, should be the stop-Goldwater candidate. And Romney, despite his promise to the people of Michigan not to “seek” the presidency, spent the following thirty-six hours plotting to have himself drafted.

Romney told reporters that he was being called upon — that more than a hundred supportive telegrams had flooded his hotel suite after the Sunday press conference. The press held vigil outside his closed door a meeting with General Eisenhower on Monday night, and on Tuesday, he breakfasted with Nixon — Nixon with his coffee, Romney with his milk — as he wrestled with the legitimacy of his draft. Scranton was doing the planning, and told Romney that he, Rockefeller, and Rhodes were rounding up experienced operators like Leonard Hall and Herbert Brownell on Romney’s behalf, and promised the full resources of the Scranton and Rockefeller staffs.

Romney continued to press Goldwater to explain his views, and Goldwater shot back that Romney once said on Meet The Press that he wasn’t even sure he was a Republican, “So I wonder, now, why he thinks he should pass judgment on a longtime member of the party?” Romney was indignant. “That’s not an accurate quote. I wish he’d be more careful with my quotes.” Goldwater had a fair point, as the Detroit News reported: “Romney said he has been a Republican “all my life,” except for the two years he was head of the Citizens for Michigan group.”

Late on Tuesday morning, Romney again turned to Nixon, asking if this was a legitimate draft. Because if he were, his promise to the people of Michigan would not matter; it would be, as he had said, his duty to accept — a higher principle than his promise. So…was this a draft? Clearly it was not. These few fellow moderate governors had barely enough delegates left to influence the party platform, let alone pick its nominee. For Romney to decide to accept their so-called “draft” would have made him only another candidate running and campaigning for the month leading up to the convention, not a reluctant statesman being offered the nomination.

After the final Nixon meeting, Romney maintained to reporters that his decision rested on the legitimacy of the movement to draft him. Yet as the story later came out, this one guiding principle was subsumed by a cadre of practical considerations. First Romney learned that Herbert Brownell was not, in fact, available to run the campaign. Then Leonard Hall told him that a slapdash candidacy was probably a bad idea. And finally Romney saw that the members of the Michigan press corps, who could very well tell the difference between a draft and a candidacy, were ready to cut him to ribbons. Within a few hours, Romney released a statement: “I will not be a candidate.”

The next day, Barry Morris Goldwater, the man who would soon carry the standard of Lincoln, stood with the Confederate South in the United States Senate and voted against cloture for the civil rights bill, halting the legislation in its tracks. This was too much to bear for William Warren Scranton, whose family’s Republicanism was forged more than a hundred years earlier in campaigns alongside the Illinois rail-splitter. There was little political wisdom in challenging Goldwater at that stage. In fact, Scranton’s political instincts told him it was hopeless. But his principles spoke louder. “We must do it,” Scranton told his advisers, “because it is right.” And so, when Bill Scranton announced a doomed candidacy a few days later, he would speak of Lincoln and he would speak of principles.

And George Romney refused to come to his aid.

Romney would not join with the men he sought to lead only hours earlier, nor would he “do everything within [his] power” to stop Goldwater, as he had promised at Sunday’s press conference. Rather, Romney said he could not endorse Scranton because he was still considering…endorsing Goldwater. “His vote yesterday on cloture made it a little more difficult,” Romney said, though “the door is still ajar.”

Political observers struggled to make sense of Romney’s inconsistency. As Theodore White wrote in The Making of the President 1964, “Romney perplexes his less-principled observers, for no one is ever exactly sure what his principles will tell him to do.”

After Cleveland, Romney distanced himself from the stop-Goldwater faction as they endorsed Scranton and promoted party-platform amendments to support civil rights and denounce extremism. Romney instead declared his neutrality and developed his own pro-civil rights and anti-extremism platform amendments. He portrayed himself as a broker, not a member of a moderate faction. “In some things I’m more conservative than Barry Goldwater,” Romney said. (“He did not elaborate,” the Detroit News retorted.) Gerald Ford, then a Michigan congressman rising in prominence, set up a meeting for Romney with Republican leaders in Washington to lobby for his planks, and Romney incorporated their input. He accommodated conservatives by not specifically naming the John Birch Society in the anti-extremism plank because “I am unwilling to condemn anyone on a group basis” — news to his Bircher foe Richard Durant. He also backed off an effort to label the civil rights bill “constitutional.” He was being a team player, open to suggestion, unlike the stop-Goldwater clique.

Of course, Romney might simply have been positioning himself as the neutral alternative if the convention deadlocked between Goldwater and Scranton and moved to draft someone else. Romney announced he was running for reelection as Michigan’s governor in May, yet waited until the very last day of the deadline to file his petition signatures — four days after the July national convention.

Whether his neutrality was honest or strategic, Goldwater’s conservative delegates knew they had complete control of the upcoming convention, would defeat Scranton easily, and made no distinction between the Romney and Scranton-Rockefeller amendments. They viewed the 1964 platform as Goldwater’s document and only Goldwater’s document. Romney might have realized this as he hunted for support: when he, Lenore and Mitt traveled to Utah to meet with Western delegates for Goldwater, even the ones they were related to — George’s uncle Vernon and sister-in-law Janice — could not be swayed.

Romney appealed to the man himself, seeking a private meeting with Goldwater. “We could do it quietly and without the knowledge of the press,” Romney wrote to the senator on June 17. Goldwater had good reason to be skeptical, given the unhappily publicized meeting of 1963 and Romney’s disrespectful idea to summon him for a talking-to in Cleveland. Goldwater would only allow for brief discussions to and from a meeting with the Michigan delegation on June 30. Romney met Goldwater at Lansing airport and gave a flattering introduction at the meeting to the man who, as he put it, had traveled farther and raised more funds on behalf of the Republican Party than any other. Goldwater praised Romney in return, but was soon back to his candid self, joking at the meeting about “Republicans who don’t want to be associated with the Republican Party.”

Goldwater dove right into the Romney-prepped questions. On civil rights, he said that even though he didn’t vote for the bill, which had by then passed the Senate and was about to be signed into law, he would enforce it. Goldwater still believed the bill’s public accommodations and fair employment practices provisions were unconstitutional, and that enforcing them would mean “hundreds of thousands of people prowling around our business establishments, spying on our business establishments.” (“I hope I am completely wrong on this,” he added.) But all that was beside the point. The President of the United States is “bound by oath and bound by moral obligation to uphold any law whether he happens to agree with it or not,” Goldwater said. As for its place at the convention: “Now it is a matter of the law and we should recognize it in the platform.” (True to his word, the Goldwater platform promised the law’s “full implementation and faithful execution.”) The meeting continued like that, with Goldwater giving plainspoken responses on a wide range of issues. It was impossible to misinterpret where he stood, and yet Romney came out of the meeting saying he was “not entirely satisfied with all [Goldwater’s] answers,” asserting that he somehow still had not gotten the chance to ask Goldwater all the necessary questions despite the fact that his aides had personally scripted the meeting’s topics.

When the convention began in San Francisco, Romney’s planks stood no chance of getting passed in the final platform committee hearings, so he followed Scranton and Rockefeller’s last ditch act of provocation in putting amendments before a vote of the full convention. When the anti-extremism planks came to the floor, Governor Rockefeller grabbed the rostrum and let the Goldwater yahoos have it: “This is still a free country, ladies and gentlemen.” The yahoos let him have it right back, and overwhelmingly defeated the amendment. Romney followed up this venomous interaction with a softer advocacy of his own anti-extremism measure. “I am not here to aid any candidate and I am not here to detract from any candidate…. I am not here to criticize this platform. I’m here to improve it. I make this urgent plea for your open minds and hearts for the purpose of giving the candidate to be selected by this convention a better opportunity to win this fall…. Our opponents will use this with great effectiveness against us.”

Romney’s speech was received tepidly by the Goldwater legions. Then conservative Colorado Senator Pete Dominick, a Goldwater man, took the floor and mocked Romney with a satirical take on how the New York Times would have treated ‘extremist’ Patrick Henry: “a lawyer whose credentials are dubious… a spokesman of that small but vocal minority who seek to undermine confidence in the Crown.” The crowd roared. Romney, hot with anger, strode toward Dominick. (In 1964, the conventions were still as much actual meetings as televised series of speeches, with major players seated on a sprawling stage as they took turns speaking.) “What’s the big idea of making a joke out of my amendment?” Dominick, startled, didn’t know what to say. Romney’s amendment was also defeated.

Romney later took the rostrum again on behalf of his civil rights amendment. But the Goldwater forces had built a massive, disciplined machine to dominate the Republican establishment, and they meant to use it. Nothing would get through. Romney was humiliated before a national television audience. His amendments defeated, George Romney left the convention floor as his son Mitt watched from a balcony. A half century later, Romney is remembered for walking out of the convention in protest over civil rights — a story that Mitt would tell in his 1994 and 2008 campaigns.

But he did no such thing. After the platform votes were completed, there was nothing left to do that night except for him to leave. Romney then returned to the convention the next day and the next while his name was being batted around as a longshot vice presidential nomination. Though it is true that he was disappointed with the civil rights plank, Romney no more walked out of the convention than Barry Goldwater did. He was present for the madhouse that was the Wednesday balloting, when Michigan delegates adorned with Romney buttons were subjected to shouted insults and allegedly spat upon. When the Goldwater tally reached a nominating majority, George Romney did not walk out of the convention hall. He leapt to his feet and seconded the motion to make the Goldwater nomination unanimous. Romney had actually followed through on what he’d said in Cleveland about supporting the platform and nominee. The bitter pill was in his mouth.

Goldwater’s Thursday acceptance speech did not make that pill any easier to swallow. “Anyone who cares to join us in all sincerity, we welcome,” he said. “Those who do not care for our cause, we don’t expect to enter our ranks in any case.” And so that there could be no mistaking his meaning, Goldwater ordered that the next lines be double-underlined in the copies his men distributed to reporters: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” The arena shook for a solid five minutes from the applause. At those words, Senator Kenneth Keating led a large number of New York delegates out up the middle aisle. George Romney made no such demonstration. Instead, he watched silently as a Mississippi Goldwater organizer approached him on the floor and said, “Governor, I hope we can all unite behind Goldwater and everything.” Romney stared back at him and said nothing.

On Romney’s way out of town, he expressed his dismay to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Naturally, I was disappointed. I felt the amendments were badly needed. Without them, the platform is deficient — incomplete and inconsistent, particularly in the civil rights field.” Still, he said he would stick with the Republican Party, though “I haven’t had any indication that [Goldwater] is interested in my support. Apparently he feels my moral convictions in some areas are too firm for him to be interested in my support.” Time magazine captured another exchange between Romney and a reporter. “Well,” Romney said, “we’re going back to work just as hard as we can to assure Republican victories in Michigan.”

“Don’t you mean Republican victories all over the U.S.?”

“I meant exactly what I said.”

His words were harsh and the news reports focused on their negativity, but at no time did Romney declare opposition to Goldwater. In fact, he released a statement promising that if “the national campaign progresses in a… responsible manner, free of hate-peddling and fear-spreading and devoted to the issues of the day, I will be happy to support it.” He would later single out this statement in a December 1964 letter to Goldwater as evidence of how he “still kept the door open for an endorsement of you” after San Francisco.

At the time, Goldwater was angered by what he read, writing to one of his Michigan supporters in late July: “According to the press, Governor Romney is not going to back me; in fact, he has indicated that he probably will not even invite me into the state, and while I think this is an inexcusable position for any Governor to take relative to his Party, it certainly is his right.” Nixon stepped in to cool Goldwater’s head, arranging a unity summit with Republican governors at Hershey, Pennsylvania in August. Goldwater telegrammed Romney an invitation, and the two met privately at Goldwater’s Washington apartment a week in advance — at last, Romney wrote on August 10, a conversation “at length.” The D.C. meeting went well, and Romney was eager to work with Goldwater, offering to sculpt a conciliatory statement the senator would make at Hershey.

Romney personally took on the role of Goldwater speechwriter, hand-editing a draft that contained a pledge to “vigorously enforce” the Civil Rights Act, a rejection of extremism and a condescending declaration that “personal integrity” was “more important than winning an election.” Most audacious of all was his suggestion of a revision to the height of Goldwater’s convention speech: “Extremism in defense of liberty is not a vice but I denounce political extremism, of the left or the right, based on duplicity, falsehood, fear, violence, and threats when they endanger liberty. A political extremist in my view is one who advocates overthrow of our government through either peaceful or violent means…Such political extremism destroys liberty, and is a vice.” While Goldwater did not reverse himself on the most famous lines he’d ever uttered, his eventual statement, written by his research director, used language nearly identical to parts of the Romney draft, going as far to say that he sought “the support of no extremist of the left or of the right.”

A roundtable discussion on civil rights and the white backlash vote was held at Hershey as well (the meeting was closed to the public but a transcript leaked two years later). Romney addressed Goldwater with his concern about the senator’s strong support in the South, and “whether the campaign is a racist campaign.” Romney felt Goldwater had to make it clear that he rejected supporters who came to him on the issue of race. Romney knew Goldwater was not a racist himself, though that was not the understanding of the Michigan public. “I don’t know how you pick up this [Southern] vote and at the same time retain the Negro in our area. We had eight to nine percent of the Negro vote in 1962 in Michigan. The last polls show we had thirty percent interested [this year].” The “we” in those sentences wasn’t the Republican Party; it was the Romney gubernatorial campaign. Romney didn’t want Goldwater spoiling the progress he had made with African-American voters in his state, whose support could potentially seal his reelection.

To Romney’s charge, Goldwater replied, “All I can ask you to do is to believe that I am an honest man and I will put my record on civil rights against any man in the United States.” Goldwater explained that he felt the civil rights issue was overblown in the North, and that the worst racists in the South were Democrats. He gave his record as a former NAACP member, a founder of Arizona’s Urban League and someone who had worked in Arizona “to bring about what I consider to be probably the highest degree of integration ever achieved in the United States.” Romney praised this background, and suggested Goldwater speak out “with firmness and emotion…That is what is missing. And when you don’t do that, you leave this impression that you are trying to finesse this.” Goldwater was exasperated. “George, I don’t know how I can say it any stronger or any oftener than I have said it… I will just have to do more of it, that’s all.”

The majority of Republicans at Hershey were pleased. Endorsements rolled in from Scranton and Eisenhower. Even Rockefeller went through the motions, stood side by side with Goldwater and endorsed him (though he put the Goldwater buttons in his pocket rather than on his lapel). One Hershey participant said, “It was just like we had the Tuesday balloting [on the platform] all over again. The only difference was that this time we won.”

The meeting had gone so well, in fact, that even George Romney endorsed Barry Goldwater. Hours after the meeting Romney publicly called the summit “helpful in clarifying Goldwater’s views” and pledged “all the assets of the Republican Party in Michigan… for the election of the entire ticket.”

And then Romney ducked out from under his endorsement at a press conference the next day — the press report said he “backed away” from the statement while promising he was “not going to vote for anybody else.” What he needed was confirmation from the polls. In a confidential survey later that August, Romney’s strategists searched to see if Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights policies might trigger a “secret” white backlash vote in the bellwether precincts of “all-white and race-conscious Dearborn and heavily Polish Hamtramck.” They did not find it. Rather, Goldwater was getting demolished and Romney was significantly down from his 1962 vote share. It was the Republican label — not civil rights support — that was a greater burden in blue-collar Democratic Michigan.

As Theodore White later wrote, Romney “had an appetite for polls second only to Lyndon Johnson’s.” To this charge, one of Romney’s top gubernatorial aides Walt DeVries tells this reporter, “There was a difference with George Romney: he used the polls not to follow, but to lead.” DeVries was heavily involved in polling, and says that Romney used polls as a man of industry would — first to understand public opinion, and then to sculpt it. But in both 1962 and 1964, Romney chose to follow public opinion rather than lead it. It may never be known what Romney would have done had the results of the Dearborn-Hamtramck poll had been different. When briefed on this specific report, DeVries says, “I just don’t know if race factored.”

All told, biographer T. George Harris wrote, Romney ended the 1964 campaign with a giant stack of polling data in neat black folders, the information “too precise to let him ever hope, as many Republicans did, for anything but disaster with Goldwater at the top of the ticket.” So Romney did what he had to and returned to his winning formula from ’62: complete avoidance of the Republican Party. His only appearance with Goldwater came in September, when Romney agreed to introduce the senator before a speech in Detroit. It was the same duty he had performed for Lyndon Johnson when the president delivered his first speech of the campaign at Cadillac Square — a detail Romney personally noted to reporters. As for Romney’s promise, his words about Republicans supporting the platform and nominee chosen by their convention, he would say, “The Republican Party has made its decision on the platform and the candidate. I accept these decisions. I accept them, but I don’t endorse them.” That became his 1964 refrain: “I accept but do not endorse.” When a former aide working on a master’s thesis about political rhetoric asked what those words meant, he replied, “I don’t know.”

Romney was far from the only Republican to distance himself from Goldwater that year. Only Goldwater was not the only Republican Romney distanced himself from that year. Romney later wrote Goldwater that an endorsement would have been a distraction “from our Republican record” in Michigan. “I ran as a Republican on a record of state progress built with the assistance of Republican legislators. I endorsed state-wide and local Republican candidates and appeared with hundreds of them.” Romney was exaggerating his enthusiasm for Michigan Republicans. He made the political decision to completely separate himself from anyone who might be a drag on his reelection, including Republicans who shared his principles. For example, he appeared with twenty other Republican candidates in an October 17th parade, but marched by himself and never once acknowledged his fellow candidates in the four speeches he delivered — an episode recounted in the unpublished memoir of a Romney ally whom he had personally recruited to run for office.

Ultimately, George Romney had little to fear in 1964. He was running in a good economy against a divided Michigan Democratic Party and won by 383,000 votes in a state where Goldwater went down by more than a million, five Republican House members were unseated, and control of both houses of the state legislature changed hands. As Republicans took stock in the weeks after the election, Romney represented himself as a healer of the party. On December 6, 1964, Romney appeared on Face The Nation and criticized Goldwater for being unwilling to meet with him and discuss his concerns. Goldwater wrote him a letter, calling the charge “just not true” and demanding an explanation: “Now, George I happen to be just as proud of my principles as you are of yours and I don’t intend to compromise any basic feelings of mine any more than you do. Frankly, I don’t understand what principles of mine you disagree with.” Romney replied with a twelve-page letter. Rather than accept the evident truth that conservatives controlled the convention, he blamed his platform amendments’ defeat on a racist “deal” with Southern delegates. He claimed to have never been part of “any stop-Goldwater effort” and that the pre-convention delegation meeting in Michigan, the private meeting with Goldwater in D.C., and the Hershey summit were “inadequate” opportunities to discuss his concerns. Other sections of the letter were more defensible: Romney wrote that Goldwater’s campaign “never effectively deviated from the Southern-rural-white orientation,” and charged Goldwater with “intransigence” toward his fellow Republicans, “inconsistencies” on civil rights and “divisiveness.” Yet Romney allowed only minimal acknowledgement of his self-interested political reasons for avoiding Goldwater, which had clearly been at play as well.

George Romney, opponent of demagoguery and supporter of civil rights, was indeed a man of principle. Those principles surely influenced many of his actions in 1964. But ultimately his own telling of what happened that year — the telling in ascendance today — was dubious and self-serving. Romney’s final decision to abandon all members of the Republican Party “when the chips were down and the going was hard,” as Goldwater put it, was made not in a dramatic moment of protest but months later as the considered decision of a politician in pursuit of votes.

At a press conference shortly after the ’64 election, George Romney called for “unity” and rejected the “liberal-moderate” label. “I regret the fact that in the past several months I’ve been thrown into that group. I’m trying to be as conservative as the United States Constitution, as progressive as Theodore Roosevelt and as liberal as Lincoln.” It was a line he would repeat over and over again, and one Mitt Romney recently used for himself on Meet The Press (just the conservative part, of course). Over the next year and a half, George Romney bolstered his Republican credentials with an extensive speaking schedule around the country. For all his flaws, the party faithful by-and-large believed him the only Republican who could win in ’68. By the summer of 1966, when Mitt left for his church mission on the northern coast of France, Time magazine had labeled his father “the current front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.”

George Romney won his 1966 gubernatorial reelection in a landslide, leading Michigan Republicans back from the losses of the Goldwater debacle: the state legislature, the five House seats and an additional Senate seat — all in the Republican column. “The year the elephants got loose,” it was remembered decades later in the New York Times. The morning after the election was his political zenith. He told a press conference that he’d already conferred with much of the party’s leadership. Best of all: Ronald Reagan called. A rumor spread that it was the new California governor’s only outgoing call of the night. An aide later captured what the breathless Romney camp was thinking: “Could this mean that Reagan was in Romney’s corner? Was Reagan ready to discuss party unity with Romney and with no one else? Did Reagan want a shot at the vice-presidency?”

It was hubris on Romney’s part to think that all could be remedied with one election. He and Barry Goldwater had unfinished business. In August 1966, Goldwater told Human Events that he could not fathom the party nominating someone who “took a walk-out in 1964.” (It would be ironic if Goldwater created the walkout myth, given that he felt it made Romney look like a petulant grandstander, not a noble civil rights warrior.) Even Reagan weighed in, crushing the notion of an alliance. “I don’t think that a convention would support someone who stayed aloof or who actually opposed the will of the party and then was completely unregenerate.” Romney had to justify his 1964 abstention. That was when the New York Times obtained a copy of Romney’s 1964 letter branding Goldwater as evasive, vindictive and in hock to racists. Goldwater demanded Romney release his letter as well, to put their correspondence in the proper context. Romney assented and expressed shock at the leak, claiming he knew of “only two or three people who had copies.”

This was patently untrue. A brief survey of Romney’s papers, archived at the University of Michigan, finds that within days of its writing, Romney began personally disseminating the letter to Republicans around the country, sending it as far afield as 1936 presidential nominee Alf Landon. The most damning confirmation comes from one of the letter’s recipients, Theodore White, who later wrote that Romney was fickle enough to “hand out to various newspapermen copies of his bitter correspondence with Goldwater in 1964, then become furious at its publication in the New York Times and wire his sincere regrets to Goldwater.”

The letter’s publication marked the moment when Romney’s presidential prospects began to unravel. In the following months, Romney embarked on a multi-state tour to explore a 1968 candidacy on a plane full of national press who documented his erratic tendencies. Romney did himself no favors when he called moderate Illinois Senator Charles Percy “an opportunist” for not supporting his civil rights plank at the 1964 convention, and then later walked back the comment by saying he only meant Percy “had a good sense of timing.” Romney became defined by his wild inconsistencies, most evident in his positions on the war in Vietnam. At first the press was gentle with his contradictions, forgiving statements that yielded these Detroit
News
headlines on back-to-back days in 1965: “Romney Joins Front Rank of Johnson Policy Critics,” and “Romney Backs Viet Policy.” But by 1967, Romney was seeking to become commander in chief, and his pass to be vague and contradictory was revoked. While Romney would later claim to be “right too soon” on the war, he lacked a coherent progression to his ultimate opposition. To summarize, he was for it before he was against it before he was for it before he was against it again — with various ambiguities in between. Romney seemed to be frantically chasing political sentiment, seeking to bottle dissatisfaction with LBJ’s handling of the war by any means necessary. A June 1967 staff memo noted Robert F. Kennedy’s dovish stand, and advised that “political pragmatists… see political capital down the road” in an anti-war position. It all culminated in August 1967, when a local television personality asked Romney, “Isn’t your position [on Vietnam] a bit inconsistent with what it was, and what do you propose we do now?” Today, it is overlooked that his famous response, “I’d just had the greatest brainwashing anybody could get,” was merely the windup for what he said twenty seconds later: “And as a result, I have changed my mind….”

Romney’s 1968 campaign was ultimately considered inept. The press referred to his early effort as “George Romney’s Organization for Presidential Exploration,” or, “GROPE.” Columnist Jack Germond joked that he had a special key on his typewriter that printed, “Romney later explained….” Tom Wicker wrote that his Vietnam incoherencies made reporters “wonder if Romney’s square jaw was not attached to a blockhead.” Romney’s campaign never recovered its footing. After a hundred days as a declared candidate, the polls said he was headed for a humiliating defeat in the New Hampshire primary. So he quit rather than lose.

The facts are these: In 1962 and 1964, polls told George Romney to run from the Republican label. In 1968, polls told him not to run at all. Each time, Romney listened.

It has been said that Mitt Romney is cautious with what he says because of the way his father’s political career ended. Mitt never saw the brainwashing interview until a reporter showed it to him in 2006. Before his 2008 campaign, he read a graduate thesis that sought to explain George’s 1968 loss, “one of the most dramatic popularity declines in political history.” This thesis, revived with some fanfare this presidential cycle, was sloppily written and poorly reported, embellishing at least one Newsweek quote and relying heavily on an embittered Romney aide whose role was diminished after the 1966 reelection campaign. While concluding “the balance of blame must be shouldered by the candidate himself,” the thesis faulted the campaign’s high command for failing an “almost perfect individual” at every turn and resisting ostracized staffers’ attempts at a rescue. George Romney’s greatest failing, it seemed, was picking the wrong people to run his campaign and letting his staff push him to run earlier than he wished. The thesis, Mitt said last year, “made me believe that my father felt he was thrust into the limelight before he had really made a decision to run and before he was ready.” However, George Romney had been considering the presidency for years by the time he ran, and in February 1967 outlined his pitch to dissuade another candidate from entering the race in his own hand: “I am going to run. I need your whole hearted support.”

It seems that Mitt Romney has never fully grasped why his father failed in 1968. Perhaps he shouldn’t: he wasn’t there.

But Mitt was there at the start in 1962. He was there throughout 1964, and he saw what made his father a winner: a chameleonic approach to politics, never sorry, always righteous. To his credit, Mitt Romney has spared the moralizing and all the talk about principles, coming across as more calculating than his father ever allowed himself to be depicted. The calculation has actually served the son better in the long run. Mitt’s reversals seem willful while George’s just seemed manic. Neither, however, displayed a solid core. During the 1968 campaign, someone asked George Romney’s top supporter, Nelson Rockefeller, why Romney was so scattered. Rockefeller replied privately, “You’d better ask a psychiatrist.”

To answer the same question about Mitt Romney, one need only look to history.

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